You know you’ve finally arrived when your name appears in an Onion headline. The satirical paper of record paid that respect to the decades-spanning indie-rock phenomenon Yo La Tengo some years back with an article titled “37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster.” Since 1984 the band, started by husband and wife duo Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan, has been blazing an independent trail of restlessly inventive guitar rock. Their most recent album, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, was warmly received by critics and fans last year. The band arrives at the Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight for the last stop on their largely acoustic “Freewheeling Yo La Tengo Tour.”; we spoke with bassist James McNew about the tour, Hanukkah and existential tailspins.
An email I got about this Freewheeling Yo La Tengo Tour promises “stories about Yo La Tengo’s life as a band, and an encouraged back-and-forth with the audience.” What kind of back-and-forth with the audience are you encouraging on this tour? I’d say the least hostile variety. I think that email doesn’t quite convey how spontaneous this stuff is. There are points of reference to “Storytellers” in some parts, but the stuff on that show was scripted. You know, Jon Bon Jovi knows what story he’s going to tell before he goes out and plays the spoons for 45 minutes. We have no idea what’s going to happen at any of these shows. We basically decide on two songs to play when we come out and that’s it. And then people start talking to us and hopefully the answers we give will lead to the next song we’re going to play. And every night has been a wild and woolly roller coaster ride for all involved.
So there’s no order to the way in which the audience asks questions? It’s every questioner for his or herself. Sometimes people raise their hands, sometimes people just shout. Whatever delivery method they decide to use is entirely up to them.
Were you concerned when you were planning this about mob rule taking over? I don’t think we thought that far in advance. You know, it’s not as though people are beating each other up trying to ask their questions before someone else. People seem to be handling it okay. It can get a little chaotic at times but it could be worse.
Could you explain what this “Storytellers” aspect is? “Storytellers” was a program on the VH1 channel, maybe ten years ago or so. An artist would come out with an acoustic guitar – an artist who you wouldn’t ordinarily see with an acoustic guitar, so right away you knew something was up. And they would play solo acoustic guitar versions of their hit songs and then they would just talk and tell all about what they just did or what they were about to do. And then there would be a commercial and they would come back and do it again and it would last about an hour. It was pretty dreadful.
Why acoustic, why now? Well, playing acoustic certainly fits this format better than if we just got up with a full wall of amplifiers and keyboards and the big set-up that we would do at a rock show. Why now? I don’t know. Maybe we’re finally ready to talk to people. I don’t know.
How has that been going so far? All the shows have been pretty crazy, and not crazy in that “crazy rock” way. It’s really the most unusual thing I think we’ve ever done.
Wow. Well that’s saying something. It’s really strange! Just the way these shows can just swing from extreme to extreme at the drop of a hat with the questions that people ask. It’s incredible really. The only thing I can liken it to is getting up and doing improv comedy for an hour and a half. It’s just us on stage and the people looking at us trying to make something together, rather than your customary rock show by virtually any band; they have all their songs they’re going to play written down on a piece of paper, they know what they’re going to do, they’ll say hi a couple of times and then they’re done. This is something else entirely.
Okay, two part question: What’s the dumbest thing someone’s asked so far and what’s been the most fruitful question? Oh golly, I don’t know. I hate to quantify the dumbest one. I’d hate to rob someone of a title or ranking.
Well, keeping in mind there’s still one night left on the tour. And you don’t have to limit it to just one, either. Oh, I understand. And I appreciate that. There was a show we did that just wasn’t going very well. We just sort of had no connection with the audience. It was in a small theater and it was a night where we did two shows in one night. The first show was fantastic but there was just nothing happening at the second show. We were trying to at least keep it civil and I thought we were playing well but we just had no rapport with anybody. And finally at the end of the show someone yelled, “Freebird!” and I just didn’t know where to go after that, I thought I would maybe just retire from music. I don’t know, that really kind of made me question my existence. Something like that can really send you into an existential tailspin, I think. That in this day and age someone will still do that.
I know, what is that? The last time I heard it was at Sunset Rubdown. I just can’t believe someone is actually thinking, “Oh wait! I’ve got a great gag! This’ll be hilarious!” It’s one of those universal mysteries, you know, like who built the pyramids. I don’t know what inspires it, I don’t know… I don’t know… See, it’s happening again. I will say that I have never done it and I would never do it. But anyway. I’m done speaking to the topic of Freebird. As far as fruitful questions from the audience, I can’t limit it to just one; there are lots of them and they lead to us revealing stuff that we’ve never talked about before and details of our everyday lives.
Do tell! You’re getting a pretty good glimpse at it right now – you can see how the Freebird thing gets me all wound up! It’s nice, though personally I like not knowing that much about the people I’m listening to because that’s just sort of how I grew up. I grew up pre-computer and was kind of forced to use my imagination to figure out who the weirdoes were who were making the music I was listening to. I don’t know what I would have done if I could have just sat in front of them and asked them why they were so weird. But now people are finding out! [Laughs.]
You mentioned in an interview that when you go out to see bands play, people will just talk through the whole thing and it boggles you mind that people will pay $20 each to get into a show and talk the whole way through it. Is this Freewheeling Yo La Tengo tour a way for people to get this blathering out of their systems? [Laughs.] I never thought of it that way! It could be. Though I think this interactive format doesn’t really lend itself well to standing right in front of a band and gabbing to each other all night long. But yes, people do that at every concert I go to. Not just the ones I’m performing at. Everywhere that I go! I think when people are being entertained they have a difficult time separating what’s TV and what’s not TV. Maybe it’s a function of high ticket prices, where people feel they’re entitled to do whatever the hell they want, which I guess I could understand but I just don’t want them doing it where I can hear them.
Agreed. I went to see the comedian Patton Oswalt a couple years ago and watched him just unload on these people who were sitting right in front of him and talking all night long. And he finally just stopped his routine and was like, “What’s wrong with you?! ‘Honey, I’ve got something to tell you but I can’t tell you right now. I’m going to tell you six weeks from now – I just bought two tickets that cost $35 each to see Patton Oswald. We’re going to sit right up front and then I’m going to tell you what it is I have to tell you because it’s really important but it’s got to wait six weeks!”
Yeah, I saw David Cross do something really funny in reaction to crowd chatter; he just stops and starts apologizing, like, “I’m sorry, I’m being really rude. This is really just so presumptuous of me, I’m totally dominating the conversation – I’ve got all these lights pointed at me, I’m talking over a public address system…” [Laughs.] Oh… Oh, people!
Are you ever tempted to say something while you’re performing? Tempted, yeah, but I’ve never done it. There were certainly times in our career where people have been talking and talking through what we do and making noise and something that we’ve done – although it’s been a long time since we’ve had to resort to this – is we’ll just keep playing quieter and quieter until you can’t hear us. Until you literally can’t hear us. There’s something about that that’s just so aggressive; rather than play louder and louder we basically started whispering and playing inaudibly. Ah, good times!
Last year’s semi-annual Hanukkah run was canceled when the performers in Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are A’-Changing show refused to participate. Rumor has it the cast from the Broadway production of The Grinch will be sitting in with the band this year. Confirm/Deny? Actually I can’t reveal any of the special guests so I cannot confirm or deny.
Okay, I know it’s futile to ask what surprises might be in store for the Hanukkah run, but what can attendees count on NOT happening? They can count on not finding a parking space by Maxwell’s on Washington Street. Also, the cast of The Grinch isn’t going to join us… Whoops!
Does it bother you when people spell the third word in your band name “Tango”? No, I enjoy the many misspellings of Yo La Tengo. Which would actually be a really good record title, now that I think of it. I always photograph it any time I see it on a marquee – we have a pretty big collection. In Salt Lake City, about a year ago, the third word in our name was misspelled in a whole brand new way, which was pretty exciting. Everyone was pretty psyched about it. They replaced the G with a J, which is a whole new world of misspellings for us, which is great!
Yeah, after all these years still breaking new ground! It’s great. I couldn’t ask for more.
Most memorable interaction with a Yo La Tengo fan? Hard to say. It’s fun talking to people at shows and finding out you have things in common with the people who came to see you. It happens a lot that I’ll wind up talking about music or food or anything with total strangers, which is kind of nice.
What was the first New York venue where you joined Yo La Tengo and what do you remember about that show? The first gig I played was Maxwell’s in Hoboken, in March 1991. The thing I remember most about that show is that I broke a string I think on the second song of that gig and the bass player from the opening band, Sleepyhead, ran to the stage and gave me his bass while he and a guy who is now a graphic designer in New York meticulously changed the string on my bass and handed it back to me after one song with the borrowed bass. And I remember that moment as one of the most beautiful acts of human kindness I had ever experienced.
James, you’re on a cruise. The ship is sinking! There’s just time to grab three CDs before abandoning ship. What are they? Well, they would probably be duplicate copies of The Boredoms Japanese edition of the Super R record, which I think came out in 1999. Because it was in a plastic inflatable pack and I’d probably want as many of those as possible before being plunged into the ocean. It’s a great record, don’t get me wrong, but really practical too in that situation.
You live in New York City, right? Brooklyn
What part? Kind of between Red Hook and Carroll Gardens. It doesn’t really have a name.
Isn’t that Gowanus? It’s not there. It’s kind of a little alcove. I love it here.
What’s your favorite New York restaurant at the moment? I have about a thousand favorite restaurants in the city… Lord knows I can’t just think of one now off the top of my head… I don’t think I want to publicize my favorite places are because I don’t want to have to wait any longer for a table. I’ll try to think of a place I don’t go to that often. Oh, the ESPN Zone is awesome. Go now!
How about a wild "only in New York" story? A few years ago we played a Hurricane Katrina benefit show at the Angel Orensanz Center on the Lower East Side; it’s an old synagogue that get used as a performance space a lot; it’s a really cool, nice place. But myself and a few other people had tons of stuff stolen from them at that show. I had my camera stolen, a friend of mine had her DAT recorder and microphones stolen. All this stuff was stolen out of our bags while we were onstage. And I thought that was a really nice touch. I thought, “We’re in a synagogue playing a benefit for hurricane victims and someone stole our stuff… Yeah, you know, that kind of makes sense, actually.” It was so horrible I just thought, “Yeah, that is full circle.”
Photo from oliver.peel's Flickr.